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Sun's Scott McNealy Recalls Triumphs, Near Misses

The former Sun Microsystems CEO recollects brilliant innovations, hiring Bill Joy, and almost acquiring Apple, but talks little about missteps in a conversation with former Sun president Ed Zander at Silicon Valley's Churchill Club.
Asked who he would hire today, he said he would look for employees with team sports and leadership experience in their background, "the captain of the football team, the leader of the band. If you come from Stanford, I'd probably hire you anyway. They only admit students they have assessed as likely to become leaders ... and I'd know you were very well rested after two years of business school," he quipped.

Former Sun employee Lew Tucker, now CTO of cloud computing at Cisco Systems, rose to good-naturely chide Zander because he had demanded to know, "What are you doing fooling around with this Java stuff."

Zander conceded no one inside Sun initially knew what to do with Java. It had been conceived as a TV settop box system, but its portability aspects -- the ability of the Java virtual machine to run code on different devices -- seemed to make it a networking language at a time when the Internet was gaining predominance.

"It was passed around inside the company. When it was asked what we should do with it, somebody in the room always suggested that we kill it. ... The company tried to kill it at least 10 times," Zander said, but it proved to have more lives than a cat.

Asked what he thought of the Obama administration's bail out of GM, McNealy voiced opposition, although he is a native of Detroit. Instead of railing against Microsoft, as he used to, he thinks the administration's deficit spending is a greater threat to the economy's health than monopolies.

"The Microsoft bashing, was it worth it?" Zander asked him.

"They clearly won. They're still around. Maybe if I had dropped out of school earlier," he said in reference to Bill Gates' and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's early departure from Harvard. McNealy is a graduate of Stanford and Sun originally stood for Stanford University network. The first Sun computer was a workstation for the network.

The full exchange between Zander and McNealy can be viewed for $9.95 at fora.tv.